Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Becker sentenced; insanity plea denied
ALLISON, Iowa -- After nearly 10 months of trying to forgive him, Ed Thomas' sons finally addressed Mark Becker directly on Wednesday, asking him to take responsibility for gunning down their father, a renowned high school football coach.
"Every day as you live in jail, I want you to reflect on what you stole from us," said Todd Thomas, his pregnant wife standing beside him, minutes before a judge sentenced Becker to life in prison.
It was a departure for Ed Thomas' sons to hold Becker accountable for his actions on June 24, when he walked into the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room and opened fire at his former coach.
While they again acknowledged that Becker suffered from a severe mental illness, this time they focused on the 24-year-old's premeditation.
"No one else grabbed the gun that day. No one else pulled the trigger," Todd Thomas said. "No one else, like a coward, brutally murdered my father on June 24 in front of over 20 innocent kids."
After listening to statements by the coach's sons and other relatives, Iowa District Court Judge Stephen Carroll sentenced Becker to life without the possibility of parole. Last month a jury convicted Becker of first-degree murder, rejecting his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Public defender Susan Flander said Becker will appeal the verdict.
Thomas was a winner on the football field, amassing a 292-84 record and two state titles in 37 seasons as a head coach -- 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg. He coached four people who have played in the NFL.
He also was a community leader, helping Parkersburg rebuild after nearly one-third of the 1,800-person town was wiped out in May 2008 by a tornado that killed six people.
During the trial, no one disputed that Becker had broken into his father's gun cabinet, loaded a .22-caliber pistol and driven about 10 miles to the high school weight room, where Ed Thomas was working with 22 football and volleyball players.
Becker walked inside and approached Thomas. He fired six or seven rounds, fatally wounding Thomas, then kicked him and stomped on him. He cursed Thomas, then walked out of the building.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Becker had paranoid schizophrenia. He suffered episodes in his house, terrorizing his parents and forcing them to call sheriff's deputies to take him to the psychiatric ward of a Waterloo hospital. Sometimes, his delusions focused on Ed Thomas, whom he believed was appearing in his home and trying to assault him.
Becker appeared in court Wednesday wearing a blue jumpsuit, with the same shaggy hair he sported at trial and a new beard. He carried a Bible.
The sentencing hearing was a foregone conclusion. After denying a request by Becker's lawyer for a new trial, Carroll listened to the victim impact statements, then handed down the mandatory life term.
The judge also ordered Becker to pay $150,000 to Ed Thomas' estate, $16,600 in lawyer fees and $53,000 for expert psychiatric witnesses. He didn't address how Becker could pay the charges.
The statements showed the agony that Thomas' family had endured. During Todd Thomas' comments, even the judge wiped away tears.
Todd Thomas' brother, Aaron, said his three sons, ages 6, 4 and 2, have dealt with the killing in different ways.
"I can't tell [6-year-old Owen] not to be scared or that nothing will happen, as he witnessed it. He knows his grandpa was murdered by Mark Becker," Aaron Thomas said, speaking directly to Becker.
Aaron Thomas said his 4-year-old "just locks up and gets stiff" when he sees Becker's picture on television.
"It's too bad you made the choices you made," he said. "You'll never understand how much you hurt our family, nor do I think you care."
The judge emphasized that Becker's actions affected countless other people. He noted that Thomas often spoke of the choices individuals made.
"Mr. Becker, you have brought unresolved chaos to their lives, and chaos is evil," Carroll said. "Coach Thomas was right, Mr. Becker. We are free to choose, that is what makes us human.
"That freedom to choose means freedom to choose good and freedom to choose evil."
Thomas' relatives frequently have spoken about their religious faith in dealing with the coach's death. In his statement, Aaron Thomas again spoke of his faith in God and his certainty that Becker's true penalty still awaited him.
"Your worst punishment is still to come," he said, "when your time on Earth is over and you have to answer to God for the murder of my father."